Source: Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 51, No. 2, 153–163, 2014
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This article examines whether research undertaken as part of course work should fall under the remit of the research ethics committee (REC) – a question not examined in the academic literature before now. The authors argue that in-class research should be subject to research ethics (RE) oversight, delineate the resultant challenges facing RECs and propose potential solutions.
RECs oversight of in-class research
One of the primary arguments for excluding in-class research from the remit of the REC is that it does not constitute research as traditionally defined, namely an activity undertaken in order to discover things in a systematic manner, thereby increasing.
From the research participant’s perspective, however, there is no distinction between contributing to a project that is part of an in-class assignment and an academic thesis.
Educational institutions must integrate ethics into the curriculum in order to develop ethical awareness in future generations. Requiring students to engage with RE processes when undertaking in-class research affords them the opportunity to wrestle with ethical considerations in a real-world situation.
Risk of unethical practice
It might be advanced that research carried out as part of a taught module is unlikely to give rise to ethical issues. Therefore, RE oversight is essential in ensuring the relationship between the university and its stakeholders is not damaged by unethical research conduct, or indeed by students over-researching the local population and becoming a nuisance.
Harm to the researcher
The protection of researchers is one of the key functions of a REC. Student researchers, especially undergraduates undertaking research as part of a taught programme, are likely to be relatively young and inexperienced, and arguably therefore, in more need of protection. REC oversight of in-class research adds an additional layer of protection for researchers in ensuring that the correct structures are put in place to protect student researchers.
Enhancing research ethics culture
While it is acknowledged in the literature that the interaction between RECs and researchers is often marred by distrust and conflict, the authors suggest that this can be avoided if RE oversight is seen to do more than simply review applications based on rigid rules. They propose that RE review should actually enhance the research culture of a university. This is possible if it goes beyond ensuring research is conducted in an ethical manner and facilitates research progress by prompting researchers to consider pertinent issues such as access to participants, securing informed consent, the confidentiality of data, ensuring vulnerable participants are protected, and so on. Adopting an accommodating approach to RE oversight can dissipate faculty and student resistance to the RE process.
While the authors strongly advocate that primary research undertaken by students as part of taught modules should be the subject of RE review, they do acknowledge the significant difficulties this raises.
Perhaps, the most obvious challenge is the sheer scale of work for the committee. While the scope of in-class research projects is typically narrow, each must be considered in the same manner as all other proposed research. At an individual level, the time and energy invested in reviewing applications results in a significant opportunity cost for academics already juggling teaching, research and administration roles. In the context of the ‘publish or perish’ emphasis of the Academy, many academics may be unwilling to commit the time required to effectively serve on the REC.
Timing is another significant issue. Unless REC submission deadlines are carefully considered in advance of setting class project timelines, it can be difficult for students to comply with REC procedures within relevant time frames.
A further challenge is to ensure that faculty involved in teaching engage with RE review. If students are to benefit from the process, it is imperative that faculty encourage and assist them. The introduction of any new bureaucratic process is usually seen as an imposition of further work on faculty members and is rarely welcomed.
The authors suggest novel approaches to existing RECs that may improve their efficiency.They suggest that identifying suitable individuals to populate and chair RECs is critical to successfully enhancing RE culture.
A well-defined framework clearly articulating what is and is not allowed, coupled with use of an abridged form, which would capture any contentious research, while also facilitating the speedy review of innocuous projects, would assist RECs in the oversight of in-class research without creating an onerous process for students, module leaders or the REC. Universities need to implement procedures to ensure that students have opportunities to undertake primary research without exhausting the research population.
Perhaps, the most effective mechanism for efficiently processing REC applications involving in-class research would be the establishment of a specialist REC. Convening a committee to consider in-class project applications facilitates having more faculty members exposed to RE oversight.
This article has explored the question of whether student research undertaken in the context of taught modules should be subject to RE review. The authors contend that the RE review of in-class research involving human subjects will protect researchers, participants and the institution, serve to engender a strong RE culture within universities and ensure that students graduate with an ethical awareness not always evident in recent generations.
The authors outline a number of mechanisms that can plausibly be used to address the issues of resource constraints that limit most REC’s in the contemporary environment. Of particular note are their novel suggestions of asynchronous review and the inclusion of students in the oversight process, with due safeguards built in. Most importantly, while the provision of RE frameworks to guide student researchers in conducting in-class research involving human subjects may be useful and practical, the authors would simultaneously urge RECs to adopt an accommodating approach to in-class RE oversight that will enhance the ethics culture of the institution rather than simply become another bureaucratic layer in an already overburdened domain.